Pinellas commissioners approve extra $6 million for sheriff's office

County commissioners okay $6 million extra for the Sheriff's Office to boost deputies' pay.

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CLEARWATER — Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri will receive an extra $6 million from the county's general fund next year to pay his deputies more.

In a budget workshop Thursday, county commissioners agreed to set aside that amount from a projected $14 million cushion in next year's budget. Gualtieri had asked for $20.6 million over the target budget the county gave him, but he told commissioners last month he could get by with $6 million to finish a new pay plan that awards raises based on experience. The sheriff has said higher salaries will help him retain and attract top talent by being more competitive with surrounding agencies.

Commissioner Karen Seel supported the move but warned the pay plan would commit future commissions to higher costs in future years, which could be problematic during another recession. Commissioner Pat Gerard agreed but noted that some governments suspended the step plans during the last downturn.

"I think the caution is warranted, but I think we are being cautious," Commissioner Ken Welch said.

Afterward, Gualtieri said the plan will cost less than giving annual 3 percent cost-of-living raises. He said the agency can freeze the annual increase in tough economic times by exercising an "economic hardship" clause.

"We're doing this in a cautious and fiscally responsible way that solves the problem, keeps us competitive, accomplishes all the goals, but at the same time is mindful of the fiscal limits," he said.

Commissioners generally went along with the recommendations from County Administrator Mark Woodard based on priorities commissioners have highlighted in recent weeks. Woodard and staff are building the budget with the intention of keeping the county millage rates the same and maintaining reserves at 15 percent of the general revenue.

Other big-ticket requests that garnered approval are $2 million for software to manage the county's assets; $1.6 million for a Microsoft licensing agreement; and $965,000 for a pilot program to develop best practices to treat frequent users of the county's behavioral health services.

The budget will also accommodate requests from some of the constitutional officers. Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark will get nearly $700,000 for high-speed ballot scanners, electronic poll books and other new voting technology.

There's good news for arts advocates, too. Creative Pinellas, the county's designated arts agency, will receive $200,000 to promote the arts and provide minigrants to artists. The agency will augment the funding with $100,000 from its reserves.

Commissioners also agreed to $105,000 to raise the minimum wage for employees who work under the county administrator; $99,250 to renovate a portion of Clearview Elementary for the Florida Dream Center to use as a home base for its Adopt-A-Block program in Lealman; and $70,000 for youth sports organizations such as the Seminole Youth Athletic League Association and the Cross Bayou Little League to repair and maintain fields and facilities.

The first public hearing on the budget is set for Sept. 10.

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.